Calculated, Caricature, and Cliché: A review of Paula Vogel’s Indecent

By Robert Margolis

Paula Vogel’s play Indecent, currently in performance at The Arden Theatre Company, is a play about a play, Got fun nekome (God of Vengeance) written originally in Yiddish, in Warsaw in 1906, and about its author Sholem Asch and some of the actors and actresses who performed this play, whether in its original language or in various translations, throughout Europe, in Russia, and in the United States. “Got fun nekome was the first Yiddish play to be translated and staged throughout Europe,” writes David Mazower (editorial director of the Yiddish Book Center) in his article “10 Things You Need to Know about God of Vengeance,” and thus has its own variegated cultural and performance history (including incidents of censorship and, in the United States, in 1923, an arrest of the Broadway cast for obscenity, which, for some reason, overly fascinates Vogel, as does everything else that is obvious about Asch’s original play).

Mazower also writes that, because of its subject, characters, and language, “[o]ver the last twenty years or so, Got fun nekome has been updated, revised, adapted, and reworked almost as many times as it’s been staged in the original.” And he is generous in his regard for Vogel’s play when he summarizes it as using “fragments of Asch’s original in a much broader exploration of authorship, the power of theatre in general, and the lost world of Yiddish theatre in particular.”

This is what Vogel’s play maybe had the potential to do and to be about. But this description of Indecent, it turns out, and though there are many eager to share it, is an unfulfilled ideal; rather, the actual play makes of it merely a recitation of received ideas. Vogel’s play does no more than exploit, but does not explore, the sentimentality and assumptions of its own received ideas.

For everything Indecent purports to be about is even more what it is not about. Why? Because what primarily is missing is what seems to be most present: Asch’s play, its author and its performers. Instead, there are caricatures and not characters, the sensationalized aspects of the play––or of the character’s personalities, but not the play.

Sex, prostitution, lesbianism, a kiss between two woman lovers, and the desecration of a Torah scroll. So, nu? These are already in the Hebrew Bible. And so? All that’s needed is for us to find out all the women characters are really played by “Mrs. Maisel,” wearing ‘the Jewish star,’ and who steals each scene with a musical tableau. Of all the stories Vogel could have found to tell in her play about a play, she chooses the obvious and easily commercialized; and she does so with a vengeance, so insistent is her script on homogenizing the then and now, the past and present––just as mass media does it by leveling everything into the ‘contemporary,’ and requiring just as little of our imaginations. The characters, one feels, are written to vehicle and support this sentimentality and sensationalism, and thus are reduced more to caricatures of that which the author intends and want us to imagine them to be.

Yiddish, as others have observed, is the language through which the Jewish people entered modernity, and entered especially through Yiddish literary art and culture. As Mazower writes: “The former yeshiva student [Asch] had absorbed the latest trends in Polish, German, and Russian modernism and was now a cosmopolitan European writer.” Here is the story we should find within Got fun nekome, of its author Sholem Asch and its actors–the rupture and ‘leap,’ the transformation and metamorphosis in and through literature and literary culture, that Indecent completely ignores (if its author is even aware of it). Here, precisely, is the vital, essential story left unimagined, unwritten, undramatized.

Here too is the matrix from which emerge the struggles, the polemics over what Yiddish literature should include, what should be its purpose(s), and about what effect it had, or was imagined to have, on the views and attitudes about Jews held by the dominant host societies into which many Jews hoped to integrate if not assimilate and thus be more or less fully accepted as equal citizens. Presenting the latter, as the play does, through a few perfunctory declamations and shouts about “anti-Semitism,” whether that of the audiences or, as some accused, in the play itself, just doesn’t cut it.

There is little if any sense, in Vogel’s attempted characters, that these are Yiddish artists––multilingual and multicultural (as its now called) writers, dramaturgs, actors/actresses, natives of a complex and sophisticated Yiddish literary culture developing at a highly-accelerated, unprecedented pace. Of which Sholem Asch and his play is representative and openly exploring. Vogel’s script assumes we audiences know the culture, the thinking, the traversals through Jewish tradition to modernity, the artistic sensibilities from which, in which, Asch could write his play, and why it was then, and still is now, so compelling and accomplished, while also allowing, even inviting, transposition and interpretation.

But we, most of us anyway, do not know. And therein, as well, lies an untold story about which, through Indecent, Sholem Asch, his original play, Yiddish theatre and literature could have spoken, but do not.

With its ‘made-for-TV Jews’ (including most odiously, at the play’s end, its ‘Holocaust Ghetto Jews’), Indecent’s characters feel and its script reads like a Wikipedia entry that has been dramatized. Vogel does not have a command of the complexity and subtlety her subject and characters need here. Which is to be regretted. Because Rebecca Wright, the director of this production (the play’s regional premiere), along with its very able and honed cast members, clearly love and are dedicated to both Vogel’s play and to the language(s), meaning(s), and histories of Asch’s original. Regrettably again, Wright’s direction and the cast’s performances–however good, nuanced, and sensitive they can be, cannot provide or substitute for what Vogel the writer could not give her story and its characters.

Indecent is thus (something of) an idea for a play that waits to be written, with characters, not paint-by-number Jewish caricatures, with much more awareness and nuanced understanding and imagination of its subject(s). Indecent ends up–and surely this is not its author’s intention, doing to Sholem Asch’s play and to Asch himself what Fiddler on the Roof did to Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye der milkhiker (Tevye the Dairyman). Which is: simplistically caricature the complexities and ambiguities of the story and its characters, and more broadly of Yiddishkeit and Yiddish literary culture.

The fine production and performances of the Arden Theatre Company’s staging of Indecent, precisely because of their excellent quality, unfortunately, serve to reveal how full of self-congratulation are the comments (in the playbill) about the play’s alleged ‘insights’ and the overestimation of the script’s content and craft.

Franz Kafka (for whose writings Yiddish theatre infused vital possibilities), in one of his journals, refers to “a kind of congenital indifference to received ideas” that is his own. It is this indifference precisely that one needs when presented with the play Indecent, which attempts to use Yiddish artists, and Yiddish literature and literary culture, for sentimental effect, social statement and ideological purpose. An indifference to received ideas which is all the more necessary to a critical assessment of this play, whose merit is in inverse proportion to the extolment and acclaim it has largely received.

Indecent by Paula Vogel, directed by Rebecca Wright, and starring Doug Hara, Michaela Shuchman, Jaime Masada, Leah Walton, Ross Benchley, MB Scallen, and David Ingram, is currently running through June 23, 2019 at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia, PA. For tickets and information, call: (215) 922-1122.